‘The Other Side of Happy’ – The Emptiness of Success—- excerpt from upcoming book by Dr. Vikisha Fripp
What happens when the overachiever achieves everything? My early childhood achievements became expectations so the rewards, when given had diminished value. The achievement of an item on my list was simply a step towards achieving the next item. So I repeated this over and over until the list was complete and waited for happiness to overwhelm me. When it didn’t, I felt empty? When did my happiness start?
What do you do when you achieve all the things on your ‘To Do/ To Become’ list and you’re still not happy? That’s what I’m figuring out now. Now I’ve been happy in the traditional sense. I’ve had a pretty awesome life thus far. I have what religious, southern people call favor. God has smiled on me despite my multiple attempts to sabotage his plan. I’ve never faced blatant racism (I know you didn’t guess I was African American from my first name but yes, I am), sexism (remember I said blatantly), abuse, violence or neglect. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a career I love, children I adore, friends who inspire me and the experience of true love, well I’m waiting on another try at the latter but that one time was epic. So despite this amazing life, I kept waiting on something else, something miraculous. It hasn’t happened yet.
I’ve been the proverbial teacher’s pet since I can remember. I actually liked being teased for being loquacious and smart. It was my shtick. All through primary and high school, I was the smart kid and it kept me from succumbing to the trappings of youth. I was one of the tallest girls, skinny, flat chested, red-headed with a Jheri curl and yet I blossomed. My teachers saw my aptitude and repeatedly verbalized their belief in my abilities building my confidence.
It wasn’t until college that I discovered being smart was not enough. I thank God for that revelation, the way the lesson was taught and the timing. That lesson stopped me in my tracks and sticks with me today. If I had not been humbled I was on my way to becoming a pompous jerk with no ability for empathy, understanding or forgiveness. However, under the influence of my Professors and friends, I took stock of my failings and strengths and made a detailed plan for my life. This plan became my focus.
My time in college went fast and in three years I found myself in medical school. I considered college a brisk run around the track while medical school was a series of sprints. My classmates had previously worked for NASA, spoke 4 languages, had law degrees and adult children. I was amazed by their accomplishments but knew I was sitting next to them for a reason. I never again asked myself why are you here? Why did they select you? Why should you be at the top? I knew we were equally yoked and my path set, if I stuck to my plan.
Until medical school I’d never faced academic adversity; granted my definition was based on my goal of making all A’s. My friends teased me until they realized I was serious. I assumed everyone wanted the same thing; to be at the top. I remember crying outside the classroom because I made a B in Physiology. Two of my friends came to comfort me and once I explained the source of my tears they looked at me with disdain. They informed me they had both failed and were headed to summer school. A few choice words followed and they went on to inform me that not everyone wanted to be at the top, some just wanted to finish. That thought never occurred to me. How can you not want the top spot? How was your happiness not tied to your accomplishments?
I sprinted around the track finishing medical school strong and attaining my first choice for surgery residency. Surgery residency was long, grueling, unkind, and lonely but I’d do it all over. People often ask why I choose surgery and I feel it chose me. I will always remember standing in the midst of a circle of male classmates as a few playfully extolled the rewards of being surgeons saying they would get all the women. I laughed and said to myself well I guess I’ll have all the men; yay me!
Surgery training invoked both anxiety and poise. I was fortunate to have the favor of my Chairman who believed I had the intellect and surgical skill to chart my own path. Despite this comfort, there were times during my first 2 years when I questioned if I could withstand the craziness of life and death, accomplishment and defeat and fear and assurance. I knew, however, that if I finished this program I could attain whatever specialty I wanted. I did what was expected being on time, prepared, always available, technically sound and quiet. I didn’t really master the latter but I put my head down, steered away from hospital politics earning Intern, Resident and Chief Resident of the Year during my tenure.
It’s hard to assess my effect during this time because more than anything else I was exhausted. I know I loved being a surgery resident, living in DC, spending time with my friends and experiencing new places, food and cultures. If I wasn’t happy I thought it was around the corner.
I matched again with my number one choice for Plastic Surgery fellowship, Cornell University. I went from being a favorite to an unknown in an unfamiliar environment. However hard, in two years I would be finished and that became my goal. Happiness was within reach. Though I felt the pressure of being the first African American female trainee I felt my path was predestined and knew I was as qualified as my co-residents. I adopted the mantra of the program, which was to be the best at what you’re good at. I focused on the surgeons and surgeries I enjoyed and in what seemed to be the blink of an eye the two years were done.
My first job was my realization that I was no longer a small town girl. After 6 months my cons outweighed my pros and I decided to start my own practice. The next year I opened a practice and got married. Premier Plastic Surgery was the culmination of 14 years of education. I enjoyed the autonomy and freedom of being solo and eagerly worked 14-18 hours a day, 7 days a week alongside my husband. Four years into seemingly living my dream, I was terribly unhappy. People assumed I was happy so I put on a mask and kept trudging along.
I received a call from a good friend from training asking me to join him in DC and with little hesitation, I accepted the opportunity. The idea of starting over brought the excitement of a challenge. With our 3-month-old daughter, we quit our jobs/closed our practice and made the leap to make DC our new home. Having trained in this hospital I knew everyone from the janitor to the President. Everyone. I couldn’t go to the cafeteria without being stopped 3 times to talk and I enjoyed this. I had the blessing of twin boys my second year there and thought this was the pinnacle. I was a Plastic Surgeon, wife, mother, daughter, sister, social butterfly with nice homes and great friends. I was healthy, sane (most days) and yet unfulfilled.
I rechecked my To Do List. There must be something left to accomplish, so I threw myself into my life becoming mentally and physically exhausted but no one knew. I hurried around town attending all my children’s activities, joined committees at the hospital, participated in social activities and got a divorce. Yep, I slipped that in for good measure. Despite constantly being around people I felt an intense emptiness. I was tired of wearing the disguise of happiness while internally knowing the truth of my void. Was this what life had to offer? Was happiness dodging me? Was I incapable of feeling genuine happiness and fulfillment?
Three years ago I reached my bottom; I was drably moving through life with no focus. I needed to do something different, if not for me for the three children who were watching. I took a deep breath in, looked in the mirror and asked myself to be honest. I began the quest to discover the other side of happiness.
A huge first step was acknowledging my list and expectations were outdated. I’d created it over 20 years ago and there were so many ways I had changed. I had a job but not a career and there were no opportunities to make it more. While stunted, I was comfortable. The gift of starting over professionally was unexpected. I admittedly didn’t see my hospital closing as a blessing initially, however, it is one of the best occurrences to happen. I am now able to start anew in a university system with the resources to support my practice. I’ve set fresh goals with realistic expectations of myself to avoid disappointment.
The hardest step was slowing down. I took everything off my calendar and scrutinized both its value and my value to it before replacing. I made a list of people I was grateful to have in my life and called each one. I carved time out to do the things I use to enjoy. I started running again, now having completed 4 marathons and over 50 halves and road races. I’m also a logophile again. Most importantly I spend more time engaged with my children. I truly delight in their development. Their personalities are hilarious and the source of unceasing laughs; the adage the days are long but the years are short can’t be more true.
For self-preservation, I admitted to myself that I am an extroverted introvert. While I’ve never met a stranger, I secretly wish I had the ability to decline the opportunity to converse every time I see someone I know. A simple ‘hello’ is sufficient. I don’t want to be trapped in the bathroom looking at breasts and abdomens every time I say I’m a Plastic Surgeon. So I’m conscious of this and guard both my time and my responses more carefully.
While I’ve lauded my self-sufficiency, never having been one to need a cheerleader I recognize I like the support of a significant other. My friends are gems but don’t offer the same kind of support. Along those lines, I’ve also decided that at this age and stage in my life men either are or they are not, potential is not considered. That’s a big step for me because I’m always making allowances for their less. Now I want more from both of us……..